Air Force Acquisitions Chief Talks Drone Wingmen, Supply Chains and the B-21

WASHINGTON — Two months into his new role as Air Force acquisition chief, Andrew Hunter has no shortage of challenges on his plate.

The COVID-19 pandemic and war in Ukraine have pushed vital supply chains to breaking point. The Air Force argues with a key contractor over a program that continues to be delayed. And the service faces tight deadlines as it strives to develop and deploy new capabilities in time for a possible major war.

During a roundtable with reporters at the Pentagon on June 24, Hunter said the COVID-19 pandemic and the war in Ukraine have brought renewed attention to the importance of keeping supply chains flowing, by especially those involving chips, processors and critical energy materials needed for missiles. and ammunition such as the Javelin.

But one problem, Hunter said, is that sometimes the defense industry can’t get the financial support it needs to ramp up production of those needed components or materials until the Pentagon awards contracts. At this point, he said, “you’re still a bit behind the power curve.”

Hunter said the Pentagon is trying to figure out how it can better give the industry a more reliable “forecast” of the materials it will need in the future, so it can line up the necessary Wall funding in advance. Street.

And the defense industrial base must attract new, innovative companies that may not be traditional military suppliers, Hunter said.

One of the Air Force’s most ambitious recent programs has been to develop a series of autonomous drones that could serve as wings for manned fighters or other combat-flying aircraft. Hunter said the service is now trying to focus on moving beyond demonstrations and fielding something that could serve in that role, which the service now calls a collaborative fighter jet.

There will always be a need for demonstrations in areas where the technology has yet to be refined, such as in swarm drones, Hunter said, and work on smaller drones that could be relatively durable will continue. But for the most part, the service will focus its efforts on delivering something that could be deployed operationally in time to fight the next potential war.

The timing and acquisition strategy for bringing this program into service is still being worked out, Hunter said. But the Air Force would likely involve multiple contractors instead of a single prime contractor, and would benefit from growing competition by making core systems self-sufficient in industry.

Hunter said the Air Force wants to have a drone wingman ready for use with the Next Generation Air Dominance program by the time it reaches initial operational capability, which it hopes to have achieved by the end of the day. end of this decade.

Hunter expressed confidence in Northrop Grumman’s B-21, which he said is set to be unveiled to the public later this year, with a subsequent first flight coming in 2023. While he There were initially hopes that the first flight of the new stealth bomber could this year, he said the government expected the process to take longer.

The tests will inevitably reveal problems with the plane that need to be fixed, he said, but these are normal parts of the process.

“I’m always puzzled when we do a test and we find something, people say, ‘Oh my God, that’s terrible! ‘” Hunter said. “No, that’s why we do tests. We expect to find things.

Hunter said the Pentagon has yet to set a revised schedule for Boeing to deliver its delayed replacement Air Force Ones, but it still expects it to be about two or three years behind schedule, as it expects. told lawmakers last month.

It’s in Boeing’s interest to complete work on the VC-25B as quickly as possible, Hunter said, because it’s a fixed-price contract.

“Every extra day they don’t deliver the plane, it costs them more and they lose money,” Hunter said.

But in what Hunter called “problematic inducement,” Boeing also took issue with some of the Air Force’s requirements for the planes, saying they weren’t explicitly stated in the contract. At this point, he said, Boeing is trying to charge the Air Force extra for these requirements.

“If the Air Force comes and says, ‘What we really need the plane is this,’ Boeing says, ‘Well, you know, our written contract doesn’t use those exact words.’ So you get this dynamic that they become very focused on, we have to finish…. Anything that we feel is in any way, shape or form, not 100% required explicitly in the contract is an additional invoice.

But he acknowledged that Boeing and the Air Force had had some difficulties with the program, particularly in obtaining the information needed to finalize the contracts.

“We can always haggle the price, but we shouldn’t be lost because we just can’t get the right data,” including cost data, Hunter said.

The Air Force is seeing improvement from Boeing recently, Hunter said, and he’s “reasonably confident” they’ll be able to fix those issues.

And the Air Force is monitoring corporate turmoil at Aerojet Rocketdyne over its failed acquisition by Lockheed Martin and the open dispute between the company’s executive chairman and chief executive. Aerojet last month chastised its chairman, Warren Lichtenstein, for his attempts to oust CEO Eileen Drake and comments he made about the now scuttled merger.

Aerojet is a key supplier of solid rocket engines used by the Air Force.

“Is the government still waiting to see what its plan is, company-wise?” said Hunter. “And then we’ll have the opportunity to assess and say, is this really going to meet our needs?”

Stephen Losey is Defense News’ air warfare reporter. He previously reported for, covering the Pentagon, special ops and air warfare. Prior to that, he covered Air Force leadership, personnel, and operations for Air Force Times.

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